Israel becomes a 'Promised Land' for non-Jewish geeks
Tel Aviv is home to a growing number of non-Jewish expats drawn by the optimism and openness of its technology start-up scene.
Tel Aviv, Israel — When Scotsman Joe McCormack got on a plane eight years ago to visit an Israeli girl he’d met through Facebook, he knew so little about this “little bit of land” between Europe and Asia that he thought Yasser Arafat was president of Israel.
With a good job at Viacom back in London and no cultural or religious ties to the country, he didn’t plan to stay beyond his two-week vacation – let alone move here.
But today he is married to his Facebook sweetheart and serves as CEO of a Tel Aviv-based social advertising start-up, Adquant, which is planning to open a San Francisco office and expand from 30 to 80 employees over the next eight months.
“My first job, I was working for the Jerusalem Post selling subscriptions to the US. It was a horrible job,” says Mr. McCormack, sitting in his sun-dappled corporate office and recalling the days of getting on the bus at 3 a.m. after earning less than £5 ($7.80) a shift. “That was one of the points when I tried to understand 'What is my place in Israeli society?'”
Now he is part of a cadre of non-Jewish expats who are carving out a niche for themselves in Tel Aviv, where a high concentration of talent and a willingness to try the impossible fuels opportunities to thrive. Their experience, so different from that of immigrants drawn by romantic notions of ancient Israel or modern-day Zionist ideals, highlights a very different side of Israeli society that is often overshadowed by the heated politics of the Middle East.
“The main reason I’ve chosen to stay here is because of the start-up scene… there’s a special kind of approach to business, creating something out of nothing,” says Cameron Peron, an American expat who has worked at six start-ups since arriving eight years ago. “The drive to build something, to make it happen against all odds … I didn’t see that in the US.”
Mr. Peron hails from Port Huron, Mich., and, like many Americans, comes from a family of immigrants who landed in a hard-scrabble environment and pulled themselves ahead with ingenuity and persistence.
However, by the time he graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in international business and marketing, and dabbled in clean tech in San Diego, he felt like America had largely lost its entrepreneurial spark. So when he met an Israeli girl – “there’s no other way you can come here [as a non-Jew], by the way” he says – he jumped at the opportunity to come to Tel Aviv.
Today, they are married, and he is the vice president of marketing at Newvem, a cloud-optimization and analytics firm that works with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Windows Azure. Many other Israelis married to a foreigner move abroad, so many people are “very confused about why I chose to stay here for so long,” he says.
But he wants to start a $10 million company, and Tel Aviv offers fantastic opportunities. Even compared to an innovation hub like San Francisco it has unique advantages, says McCormack, who started his company in his small Jaffa living room with a colleague from work. Though they never needed outside funding, Israel’s close-knit community of entrepreneurs and investors provided a valuable asset.
“Everyone is accessible in Tel Aviv,” says McCormack, recalling how in his early days a CEO drove out to a café in his neighborhood to offer advice, without looking for anything in return. “Through meetups you can meet the most prolific angel investors in Israel and you can get introduced. If you have a good idea, you can rise to the top.”
Changing political views
To be sure, there are certain challenges that San Francisco entrepreneurs don’t face.
When Peron was working late hours ahead of Newvem’s general availability (GA) for its AWS analytics service last fall, rockets were falling on Tel Aviv, triggering sirens.
The rocket fire, coming amid Israel’s offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, sparked some lively debate with friends. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so palpable in Jerusalem, is largely off Peron’s radar. When was the last time he was in the ancient city.
“Umm …. I was there for a wedding,” he finally remembers. “In April … 2012.”
The last time he chose to go of his own accord was three years ago. With no car and a penchant for international travel, he is far more connected to the cosmopolitan cities of the West than Jerusalem, just an hour to the east.
Others are more dialed in to the political side of life in Israel, though.
“Israel was the last country in the whole world I ever thought I’d live in, because I totally disagreed with their politics,” says Gordon Meagher of Dublin, Ireland, another non-Jewish transplant who followed a girl here. But his now-wife “grew up in a bomb shelter” in Nahariya, near the Lebanese border, and Meagher came to see another side to the conflict.
“I think that some of our [Israel’s] policies here – i.e. settlements – that’s wrong,” he says, noting that his perspective is shaped by the violent sectarian battle the Irish people endured. “If we’re ever going to have peace here, that will have to stop…. I think if we do that, there’s enough of this amazing country for both peoples to live in peace.”
Precisely because of the transformative impact of living in Israel, Peron thinks that it would be in the government’s interest to make it easier for a limited number of highly skilled workers – chosen specifically for their talent rather than their religion – to come here each year, not only to contribute to the start-up scene but also to return home as ambassadors for a more nuanced view of Israel.
But that might ruin a well-kept secret, where a handful of outsiders can enjoy floating in the Mediterranean after work and gazing up a palm trees that their friends back in the rainy United Kingdom could only dream of.
“For me, Israel is like a little unknown kind of paradise,” says Mr. Meagher. “Don’t tell anyone about it because they’ll just come.”